Trailblazer Jamila Gordon is the CEO and founder of Lumachain, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence to trace food through every stage of the global supply chain.
Lumachain founder and CEO Jamila Gordon GAICD is deeply passionate about improving safety and integrity of food supply chains, including for the workers who have been historically invisible in a product’s origin story. Her company — which secured $3.5m backing from CSIRO’s Main Sequence Ventures innovation fund in July 2019 — applies computer vision-based AI and other cutting-edge technologies guided by ethical principles to shine a light (luma means “light”) on every stage of a product’s journey.
“Our original idea was to build a platform that provides complete traceability from farm to fork,” says Gordon. “We can also assure our customers — and their customers, in turn — that food has been safely, correctly and ethically produced, and employees have been properly trained and well-treated.”
While there are plenty of companies eager to tell the farm-to-fork story of their products, Gordon’s reason for also shining a light on workers is personal: when she was a growing up in Somalia, girls weren’t educated. The eldest daughter of 16 children, Gordon started work when she was five. “One of my jobs was to carry buckets of water from the well to the huts,” she recalls in a talk she gave for TEDWomen 2020, which already has 1.1 million views. She remembers putting the buckets down frequently because they were so heavy, and the handles dug into her hands.
“And I was so scrawny because we didn’t have enough to eat,” she adds. “Even though that experience taught me resilience, it’s not something I want any other child to go through. I want to live in a world where people are not limited by local language, by geography, by lack of access to knowledge and training, where everyone is safe at work. Where nobody’s excluded because they cannot read or write, where everyone can fulfil their potential. Now, AI can deliver this world.”
Technology bolstered with integrity
Recently named 2021 Australia-New Zealand Innovator of the Year in the Women in AI (WAI) awards. Gordon sharpened her technology smarts in a career with large corporates such as IBM, Qantas and Deloitte, which included managing global scale-ups of massive enterprise systems. Gordon knows how to build, package and price solutions for global markets and is adept at identifying which technologies offer the most scope.
In the early days of Lumachain, Gordon and her team had explored several technologies to monitor and trace food through the supply chain — including DNA, isotope analysis and blockchain — but good as they were, each had limitations. A breakthrough came in 2019, after Lumachain was selected as one of the first Australian startups to participate in Microsoft’s ScaleUp program.
"In the end, we chose to base our platform on computer vision-based artificial intelligence, which allows computers to see like humans can — and that decision turned out to be a game changer for us,” says Gordon. “Working closely with enterprise customers around the world, in addition to food traceability, we’ve since discovered so many other use cases for our computer vision platform, including monitoring social distancing, making sure food is produced safely and in line with specifications, and even checking worker and animal welfare.”
Gordon says boards and executives need to have a reasonable understanding of the capabilities of AI, including that it can do a lot more than just data analytics. “AI is much broader and there is opportunity everywhere,” she says. “In 2011, Marc Andreessen [co-author of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser] famously said ‘Software is eating the world’, by which he meant everything that could be digitised, would be. History has proven him right. The same will apply to AI — everything that can have AI applied to it will have.”
Gordon believes AI should also be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat to workers, because although it will undoubtedly automate and displace some jobs, it can play an important role in breaking down barriers to education.
“My aim is to use technology to translate training material into the languages the workers speak, so it’s easily accessible,” she says. “When I first came to Australia, I couldn’t speak English, no-one could train me, so I had to start as a kitchen hand.”
Providing workers training in their chosen language is important, notes Gordon, because many of the people who do manual labour for the food industry are recent migrants and refugees. One of Lumachain’s customers in the US, for example, has workers from 53 different language groups other than English. “Now we can use technology to identify who needs training, what language they speak, whether they can read or write — so if they need an audio version of training, Lumachain will help those people achieve their potential,” she says.
The key is to choose your funding partner carefully — apart from capital, what else do they bring to the table?
Boards and innovation
All organisations wanting to make a difference in the world — and especially those wanting to innovate — need to attract and retain the best people, with the best potential. “We’ve focused on building a great culture, with elite talent,” says Gordon. “We haven’t always got hiring calls right, but we’ve learned from our mistakes and improved our hiring processes to the point where we generally get those calls right.”
Boards can help innovative organisations succeed by encouraging diversity, she adds, stating that diversity of background, expertise and experience are critical if an organisation wants to create game-changing solutions. “Build a culture where you give smart people with different backgrounds, mindsets and attributes an opportunity to test and learn fast,” she says. “Speed is key. Success in innovation doesn’t come from a single blinding insight. It comes from constantly testing, learning and iterating — at speed. Our people know it is fine to try and fail, learn from the mistakes, and then apply those lessons without fear of failure.”
Lumachain has a small official board that includes lead investor Mike Zimmerman from Main Sequence Ventures. There is also a small advisory board including Datachain’s Michael John Peña and Straight Bat Equity’s Steve Gledden. Gordon says the calibre of the board and advisers gives the company a huge advantage through a diverse set of expertise and connections.
“The board helped think through our expansion strategy,” she explains. “We’ve built our tech here in Australia and then partnered with a few very large enterprises here and overseas. Those enterprise customers bring immediate scale. It’s a challenge, and wise heads who have been there before are enormously helpful.”
The Lumachain board is helping the organisation think through questions such as which markets to expand to (and when), pricing structures and which investors to invite to participate in its Series A fund raise.
“There is plenty of money out there, so if your idea and team are good enough, and you have customer traction, the funding will flow,” says Gordon. “The key is to choose your funding partner carefully — apart from capital, what else do they bring to the table?”
She recommends reference-checking any potential investor to find out what they’re like to work with — even when a business hasn’t gone well — because you can learn a lot based on how they’ve behaved when one of their investments hasn’t worked out.
“Make sure you also genuinely like spending time with them, and can have challenging, valuable and supportive conversations with them,” she adds. “Choosing a funding partner is a bit like going into a marriage — ask yourself, ‘Will this relationship go the distance, in good times and in bad?’”
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